When the Olympus E-P1 busted out onto the digital camera scene, it looked like a marvelous alternative to all the giant digital SLR monsters out in the world. It was small, it was pretty, and it had interchangeable lenses. Hold on to your wallets, nerds, its autofocus was also woefully slow. The E-PL1 came out around six months later with a $300 price cut, a much-clamored for viewfinder (via hotshoe), and a built-in flash. But what about the autofocus? Still slow, but for what the E-PL1 is meant to be, we’ll forgive it. We like it. Dare we even use the other L-word?
Gone is the retro styling of the E-P1 and E-P2. With the E-PL1 you get a functional box, which is by no means ugly and resembles the Panasonic GF1 more than its Olympus brothers. There’s a rubberized grip on the righthand side of the camera, which though skinny, works.
The most notable additions to the E-PL1 are the hotshoe in the middle, which gives you accessories like a viewfinder or a flash, and the pop-up flash on the left. Photos with the flash are nothing to write home about, which is to be expected from a pop-up flash, but at least it’s there this time around.
It all adds up to a package that’s slightly bigger than bridge cameras like the Canon G10. It’s also much smaller than small digital SLR cameras like the Canon EOS 550D, putting it literally in between the two kinds of photographers Olympus hopes to attract with the E-PL1 -- dudes that are somewhere between serious enthusiasts and professionals, dudes that have a budget somewhere between P30,000 to P50,000 ($600 to $1,000), and dudes looking for a “This one’s just right” size sweetspot.
Not a lot of buttons here
...and just one dial
Together with the retro styling, the E-P1’s abundance of dials and buttons has also disappeared with the E-PL1. You get one dial with i-Auto, Shutter priority, Aperture priority, Program, and Manual modes (as well as Movie and Scene modes). In place of buttons like AEL/AFL, you get a movie button -- something to please the my-first-SLR crowd. Thankfully, you can re-map any and all of the buttons.
Live Control Mode
Control is now achieved through what Olympus calls Live Control mode, which lines up a list of most-accessed features with a press of the start/ok button, like ISO settings, white balance and metering options. Depending on what mode you’re in, you get less or more options. Put the camera in Manual and you can tweak virtually everything. But in Program mode, there’s virtually nothing to tweak.
Olympus’ i-Auto mode departs significantly from the standard camera control scheme in the other modes, letting you move various sliders between slow and fast subjects, vivid and subdued colors, etc. It’s supposed to be more user-friendly and simple, but for those who already know even a little about photography, this can just be more confusing.
Like Tetris, Live Control takes “seconds to learn and a lifetime to master.” At times it can be confusing to remember what options you have in what mode, but it does what it set out to do: put all the controls you need two to three button presses away. You can look at this as either a good or bad thing. Two button presses isn’t much, but that’s two more than a dedicated dial.
Super Control Mode
For the digital SLR camp, you can skip Live Control and go to Super Control mode, which drops all your settings in a more familiar menu.
To cut to the chase, photos are everything we’d hoped they would be. Image quality leans towards SLR quality instead of large-sensor compact camera quality in sharpness, resolution, color, you name it. Transferring photos to the computer was consistently a surprisingly joyful experience, seeing that the photos that we took were full of detail and life.
The experience wasn’t perfect, not by any means. We did have a number of gripes.
Topmost in the gripe list is still autofocus. In most situations, AF is serviceable, achieving lock in a reasonable amount of time, so I’ll venture that AF has been improved since the E-P1. Every now and then though, the lens will squirrel back and forth and fail to achieve any kind of lock. These moments are rare enough to overlook, but they can be annoying when it happens. In video mode however, AF is so slow as to be useless.
At any rate, the E-PL1’s AF isn’t one that can be called “fast,” but most of the time it’s “good enough,” and 11-point AF is also good enough to land on the bottom rung of the SLR crowd without getting into a pissing contest.
Flash photography is also challenging. You’d think that Olympus would better match exposure with the built-in flash, but the flash will often overexpose your photos. Plus white balance is knocked into a cold, cold light setting, making friends and family look like they belong in a Twilight movie.
The good news is you can safely ignore the flash and shoot in dark situations without it. ISO performance is pretty good at 400 to 800. If you’re really desperate, you can venture to 1600, the point where image noise can’t be ignored. When the subject is in darkness, accurate and responsive spot metering from the E-PL1 helps.
Great detail from the large sensor, good ISO performance and generally simple controls make shooting with the E-PL1 a joy. If you’re coming from the world of compact cameras, this is the best thing since sliced bread. If you’re coming from the world of SLR cameras, you may have to adjust your shooting style a little, take your time, and try not to chuckle at the user-friendly, idiot-proof controls. But either way, the results don’t lie. The camera produces some great photos with minimal prodding.
Like lots of SLR cameras nowadays, the E-PL1 takes HD videos. This time around it’s 720p (1280x720) videos recorded at 30fps as a Motion JPEG. It’s not the full HD (1080p) found in some SLR cameras.
Video quality is outstanding, and you can achieve different shots with different lenses -- an astounding proposition any way you look at it. Audio is disappointingly mono, but if you’re really serious about video, you can buy a stereo mic add-on. If you’re even remotely serious about video you’ll know that a mic is the first thing you’ll need to buy anyway.
Autofocus is next to useless in videos, as we mentioned earlier. Not only does it take a short eternity to achieve focus lock, the motors are also noisy. So turn off the autofocus, unless you like the sound of gnashing gears in your videos. Put the camera in Continuous AF mode and try to shoot your pet rabbit bouncing around the room, and all you’ll get is a big blurry mess. So fix your focus first, or learn to adjust with manual focus. Meanwhile, your camcorder can breathe a sigh of relief. Its job is safe.
The Olympus 14-42mm lens has a big a schnozz when extended
Olympus makes a big deal about how you can use Four Thirds lenses and Zuiko lenses with the Micro Four Thirds system and a special mount.
It’s all true, but with a few caveats:
1. You will lose some AF modes on Four Thirds lenses
2. You will lose AF on OM system lenses
3. Some lenses -- such as big telephoto lenses -- will look and feel ridiculous on the little E-PL1
4. The adaptors are expensive
This puts a dampener on things. The Four Thirds user, for example, who may be looking to use his existing lenses with a smaller body may see this as a nasty trick: yes, you can use your old lenses, just not that well; forget about that little thing called Autofocus. (And when Autofocus works at all, it’s not Speedy Gonzalez.)
The whole idea of using the lenses of other systems falls down when you actually put the E-PL1 body beside these lenses. Even mid-sized lenses look huge on the E-PL1 -- like a cute tarsier with the head of a hippo.
At the end of the day, the ability to use lenses from other systems is a neat trick that’s always welcome if not too practical. But make no mistake about it: You’ll really want to use your Micro Four Thirds camera with your Micro Four Thirds lenses. Luckily, the Micro Four Thirds lenses out now range from not-that-bad to pretty good. The Olympus 14-42mm kit lens is not that bad for a collapsible compact number. The Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 is pretty damn good. Lens options are on the rise -- an encouraging sign -- but this is a new system; don’t expect to find a lot out there right now.
The Four Thirds system promised a future not constrained by the old 35mm standards of film, mirrors or other holdouts from the past; and the Micro Four Thirds system, which the E-P1 and E-PL1 employs, delivered all of that but in a smaller package.
The positioning of Micro Four Thirds cameras has been confusing. Is it meant to replace SLR cameras? Is it meant for photographers upgrading from compact cameras? The E-PL1 helps to answer these questions, and the answers are no and yes respectively. In addition, it’s also for camera enthusiasts who are sensitive about size -- dudes who think a large SLR body and humongous zoom lens will cramp their style or anyone who doesn’t want to lug around anything the size of an SLR. Those who have already invested in another system will still appreciate the E-PL1 as a smaller, second camera. But jump in only if you’re willing to invest in buying Micro Four Thirds lenses.
We’ll admit, people who fall on either side of this rather narrow category are few and far between. If you’re one of those rare individuals, this camera is a joy to use and will not disappoint. The compact size, high image quality and ease of use inspire love. That may be business as usual for Apple and Steve Jobs, but how many cameras can boast of that nowadays?